Public space belongs to everyone, so in the collective imagination the city would be neutral. This seems rather logical, but it has to be said that urban architecture, like many other fields, is not free from gender bias. Integrating the gender dimension in the development, planning and organisation of the city is an enormous challenge which perhaps begins in a hidden corner of our municipalities: public toilets.
According to a survey conducted by Hygiene Matters in 2016, 41% of French people no longer use public toilets. Among those surveyed, 53% of women are wary of public toilets. When we know that some cities can spend 2 million euros each year to install and maintain their sanitary facilities, it is quite a pity to imagine that almost half of the population will not use these facilities. Whether it is for hygienic reasons or because of unfortunate experiences, public toilets are not exempt from criticism. We can also talk about the major ecological impact of these very water-intensive facilities.
In this tribune I would like to highlight the difficulties that women specifically experience in cities and which partly explain the mistrust of French women towards public toilets.
A sexist organisation of cities
Before going any further, it may be useful to recall that public space refers to all spaces intended for the use of all, without restriction. Public space includes both circulation areas and gathering spaces, from traffic routes to parks and gardens in short. For a public space to be truly accessible to all, the condition of free access is central.
The public space therefore belongs to everyone, yet it has historically been created by men without regard to its use by women. Despite some progress, inequalities persist. It is still easier to urinate in the city if you can do so standing in a urinal rather than if you need privacy and pee sitting down.
On average we have to urinate 4 to 8 times a day.
While this is not a problem for men who can relieve themselves in the accessible and free urinals at every street corner, the solutions for women are more a matter of self-help.
There are, of course, public toilets in the streets: there are about 400 free and accessible 24 hours a day in Paris. However, for a city of 2.2 million inhabitants, this does not seem much, especially if we imagine that all these toilets are not always functional.
There are also public paying toilets, but this means that access for people who cannot afford them is limited. At an average of 0.60 ct 4 to 8 times a day, this is starting to be expensive to meet a natural need.
The women soon realised that if they wanted to enjoy the public space they would have to make arrangements before leaving home. We learned to hold ourselves back for hours, or simply not to drink so that we don’t have to urinate. These are risky practices that sometimes lead to urinary tract infections or incontinence and therefore require more frequent visits to the toilet. This is a vicious circle that some people try to avoid by going to cafés or restaurants… as long as they drink! With the closure of these establishments during the Covid crisis, the lack of public toilets is even more palpable.
Patterns that persist since childhood
In a survey carried out by Harpic on the occasion of World Toilet Day, we learn that 81% of children “often” or “occasionally” refrain from going to the toilet. This figure is far from being anecdotal when we remember that we go to the toilet 4 to 8 times a day! How can we focus on our education during an 8 hour day of classes with a pressing need that we will have to curb until at least 4.30 pm? Just imagine, young girls aged between 12 and 16 years old testify to bladder weakness during sports classes because they don’t go to the toilet frequently enough!
Urinating is a natural need for the proper functioning of the body that is all too often ignored. The persistence of techniques developed during childhood is an integral part of the female experience. All women know this, but if you are not concerned, ask around: I am convinced that the women around you have held back for whole days by being at school. That’s where we learned how to get through a day without hydration, and where we developed our techniques to hold ourselves back for hours on end. We all experienced moments of panic while looking for toilets in the city.
How is it possible that in 2021 this experience will still be universal?
An evolution in the making
Fortunately, solutions do exist. More and more actors are becoming aware of these difficulties and the consequences they have for women.
Promising startups have become ambassadors for “toilet tech”, which brings innovation to the heart of an area that has been ignored until now. Established actors continue their efforts to make the toilet experience more enjoyable and appropriate. The local authorities are investing in renewing their sanitary facilities to make them more inclusive.
It is now up to us to support these initiatives and, where this is not the case, to ask for more toilets and more solutions for women in cities. Let’s turn our outrage into action! This fight is not superfluous, or to be relegated to the background it is more than ever a question of equality between women and men, and public health. Let us bring the subject of toilets to the public arena together.
By Nathalie des Isnards, Founder of madamePee, the first urinal for women.